The Romance Reader’s Hot Cowboy Doctor

By Poison Ivy,

A study of Harlequin romance titles from 1949-2009 has been published in the Journal of Social, Evolutionary and Cultural Psychology. The title of the journal article is “The Texas Billionaire’s Pregnant Bride.” Cute. The researchers are undoubtedly proud of their analyses of these book titles. You can read about it in a popular press story on it entitled “Romance Novel Titles Reveal Readers’ Desires” by Tom Jacobs.

One of my problems with this study, which is interesting regardless of the conclusions it draws, is that it makes the claim that the prevalence of certain words in titles proves what women want. But readers do not write the titles. Editors write the titles, with marketing input. Readers buy the books because of or in spite of or with indifference to the titles. And we never know which it is. Only very specific sales information can determine if a title, by itself, causes someone to buy a book. Maybe the artwork on the cover did. Maybe the book was part of a subscription the reader bought to an entire Harlequin line. Maybe the reader read the inside excerpt or the back cover blurb or the first chapter of the book before buying it. Maybe the reader bought the book because she likes that author regardless of the titles on her books. And so on. Market research and focus groups can help, but at best it’s a guess as to what causes someone to buy a book. If it wasn’t a guess, then all books published would sell 100% of their print runs, wouldn’t they? And they don’t. Harlequin does more market research than any other publisher I know of, but their romances do not sell out.

The authors cite cowboys and doctors as the most popular (i.e. prevalent) hero types in the sixty-year span of Harlequins. But wait a minute. Although cowboys were wildly popular through much of the 20th century, most of Harlequin’s romances featuring cowboys were published long after cowboys went out of mainstream fashion. When twenty-one television series about cowboys were aired per week, and every Hollywood star acted in western movies, Harlequin was not publishing western romances. It was publishing straight westerns by authors named “Tex Holt” with titles like Canyon of the Damned. Harlequin has published most of its western romances since the 1980s, not before. Not unless you count Australian rancher titles as westerns. Or South African diamond miner titles as westerns. Or any other exotic Harlequin locale as a western. Presumably the hit TV show “Dallas,” which debuted in 1978, was the cause of this resurgence of interest in cowboys–and modern ones, at that. What is remarkable is that the western myth lives on in romances (albeit in a less heroic incarnation than that of the lone lawman à la “High Noon”) even though it has all but died elsewhere in the mass media. There still may be strong markets for westerns of any kind in Harlequin’s worldwide markets, so that might influence initial buying decisions a bit. But with “Lonesome Dove” about the only romantic period western in decades that made any mark in wider culture, the popularity of cowboy heroes in romances is surprising, a fact the researchers serenely ignore.

Turns out doctor/nurse books were the number one type found in this study. They’ve had a steadier history, perhaps. Dr. Kildare sold movies for decades. And doctors have had periods of being very much the mainstream media fashion. In the 1960s, “Ben Casey” and “Dr. Kildare” on television produced not one but two teen idol actors, Vincent Edwards and Richard Chamberlain. A slew of doctor/nurse romances were published around that time by virtually every American paperback house, not just Harlequin. Since then there have been other television doctors who engendered similar excitement, such as George Clooney in “ER.” And we still have hottie docs on TV in “Gray’s Anatomy,” “House,” etc. Given this history, I am willing to provisionally accept the notion that doctor/nurse romances have been longtime staples in romances. But is it because doctors are caring and have stable, high incomes, as the study claims? Or is it because doctors became cutting-edge heroes in the early 20th century where previously they had been uncertified, low-class hacks who usually poisoned their patients to cure them? Once doctors rose in social status, and once they routinely used medicines that worked, doctors became heroes. That might account for their 20th century glamor. Not the money angle. But still, how are we to know what attracts a woman to a doctor? Doctor romances aren’t titled “The Rich, High-Class Surgeon of Palm Beach,” or “The Caring Clinic Doctor Who Donates His Services.”

When the study speculates about “what women want” based on the titles of these books alone, I think the researchers are on unsteady ground. As one commenter on the Jacobs article noted, women don’t buy books about crimes because they want to commit crimes. It’s foolish to assume that they buy romances about cowboys or doctors or any other type of man because they want to marry them. The researchers have not asked even a sample of romance readers about their opinions and their buying habits. Are women reading romances as “how to” guides for landing billionaires? Doubtful. Most women will never meet a billionaire. And most billionaires are not young and attractive, like those in romances. I don’t know about you, but when I see a photo of a wizened old billionaire, even the nice ones who are philanthropists, my hormones do not tell me “I must bear HIS child.” So I have major doubts that romance readers are taking the hero figures in Harlequin romances—at least, the types this study cites—as face value role models for their future husbands.

Do readers buys these books because of or in spite of who is in them? Is the vision of the open space and freedom of the American west what lures readers? Or is it the vision of a man who works with his hands but is not a blue-collar worker? If you own your own ranch, you’re the boss of you, a capitalist, not the working stiff who takes his lunchbox to the factory every day. And yet the brutality of the daily grind is about the same, isn’t it? Yep. So there’s a status element involved, for sure. And what about those doctors as love objects? Is the appeal that of attaching to someone who is heroic? Or who is powerful? Doctors are notoriously despots in their medical world. Are romance readers attracted to despots as men to marry? Or are they attracted to those stories because they like to see the plucky heroines bring the arrogant doctors to their knees? Sadly, themes don’t seem to be explored in this research study. Only titles.

I think a study of the use of possessive terms would have been more interesting. The “owned like a sex slave by this rich guy” theme that Harlequin has been using for the last few years has outraged, appalled, and amused some people, but it surely is selling books or Harlequin would have stopped it by now. Or does it make any difference at all? That’s the big if. Harlequin does market research, so Harlequin knows, in theory anyway. Or does it? Are books like “The Texas Billionaire’s Pregnant Bride” selling at 100%? Didn’t think so.